TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — South Florida students lobbying lawmakers for a ban on assault rifles after a school shooting that left 17 dead found Tuesday that it isn’t easy changing the minds of Republicans who have for decades fought to expand gun rights, rather than restrict them.
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other Broward County schools spent the day meeting with legislators and other leaders in the state Capitol less than a week after a former student was accused of carrying out the deadly attack in Parkland.
But the House refused to hear a bill that would ban assault rifles and they found Republicans largely steering the conversation to other issues, like hardening school security and better screening for people with mental health issues.
“A lot of people are refusing to answer questions. I got a lot of ‘I’ll get back to you'” said Rachel Catania, a 15-year-old sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “They’re typical politicians, so they’ve all been kind of same, where they try to avoid the question, and we want an answer.”
Students were visibly upset when the House refused to consider a bill to ban assault rifles.
“After lobbying all day with all the senators and trying to get our voices out to the Democrats and Republicans, it was really a heartbreaking vote,” said Lizzie Eaton, a 16-year-old junior. “But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep fighting for what we believe in. We’re not going to let this bring us down.”
Republican Rep. Jose Oliva, who is in line to become the next House speaker, said the House is finalizing proposals responding to the Parkland shootings. While it’s clear an assault rifle ban won’t be part of it, the discussion could include treating sales of semi-automatic rifles differently than other long guns.
“In the 1980s, the big push was to stop handguns. A lot of the crimes were happening with handguns. Long guns were being used for hunting and sport. This may be one of those weapons that’s there in that kind of middle. So there’s a real debate about should this be treated in that same category.”
But he focused most of his conversation with reporters on non-gun issues, including making sure authorities better communicate potential threats, school security is beefed up and there’s a strong focus on mental health issues.
Asked about the Parkland students upset that an assault rifle ban wasn’t considerd, Oliva said he wants them to understand the “unintended consequences” of such a ban.
“I want to explain to them the role that rights play, and how when we pass a law we must take into account what the unintended consequences of that law could be for their protection and for everyone’s protection,” he said. “The consequence is that it’s an infringement on a constitutional right.”
The students also met with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a leading Republican candidate for governor who has called himself a “proud NRA sellout.”
Students described in in detail their experience listening to gunshots as they hid in classrooms and the trauma they’ve felt since.
“I couldn’t sleep for the next three nights. I couldn’t eat for the next four days,” Catania said. “Every time I closed my eyes, I saw his face. Every time I closed my eyes, I heard the sound of my best friends being murdered and my classmates in danger, and it was horrible.”
She added, “That’s why I’m here, because we’re not just numbers and statistics to put out on the internet. We’re people and we have voices and we’re going to use them, because something needs to change.”
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward County teachers union, joined the students and directly questioned where Putnam stands on banning assault rifles.
“They want the guns gone. Can you help with that?” Fusco said.
Putnam didn’t directly answer the question.
“There’s no one magic approach and we’re gathered today, I think, to look at all the things we need to do to make our schools safer,” Putnam said.
Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith pushed for bans on assault rifles and large capacity detachable magazines after the shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando. He knows that it’s unlikely Republicans will do much to change gun laws.
“After Pulse, they said, ‘We need to look at no fly, no buy.’ And what did they do? The distracted, they waited, and then they did nothing. After Las Vegas, they said, ‘Let’s talk about bump stocks. That’s the flavor of the day.’ They distracted, they waited, they did nothing,” Smith said. “This time it’s red flag legislation. They’re talking about that as the flavor of the day. They’re going to distract, wait and do nothing.”